Chhattisgarh’s common perception is largely myopic, often riddled with stereotypes of the primitive and the extreme. When I visited the state on an invitation from the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board in October, I harboured no expectations. After four days of traversing its roads, bookended by serene hill ranges and markets, not only was I bowled over by the land’s cultural expanse, but also by the humility of its people, which only reinforced the unquantifiable joys of travel.
Getting to Chhattisgarh is relatively convenient. The Swami Vivekananda International Airport in Raipur—the state capital—connects most major metros. For my first taste of the place, I stopped at Gadh Kalewa restaurant that offers the choicest, traditional Chhattisgarhi meals. The joint, supported by the government, is on the premises of the Mahant Ghasidas Samarak Sangrahalay—a museum that houses priceless statues dating back to the second century and tools from Palaeolithic times. Every section of the open-air restaurant, which seats customers on delicately carved wooden benches, is divided according to various traditional dance and music forms. The food, made by a women’s-only self-help group called Monisha Mahila Sway Sahayta Samuh, is humble and heavily subsidised. Their menu is a smörgåsbord of rustic fare ranging from chila, fara, chausela, and tethr to muthiya, dhuska, and marku.
From Raipur, accompanied by my government-appointed travel guide, we headed over to Shivrinarayan, an important landmark in the Ramayana. It was here that a woman named Shabari gifted wild berries, all that she had, to Lord Rama. The Shivrinarayanmathis more than seven centuries old, according to documented history. Another obscure piece of trivia, known only to locals, is the partially dilapidated Sathkhanda house located just behind the math premises. Constructed by one Kaushal Prasad Tiwari, it’s the oldest house in the district, built entirely in Bengali architectural style, almost three hundred years ago.
From Shivrinarayan, we visited an ancient group of temples modelled after the various avatars of Vishnu, collectively named Rajiv Lochan. According to local folklore, Lord Vishnu had saved an elephant whose leg was locked in the jaws of a crocodile (Lochan). Vishnu proceeded to behead the crocodile and replaced it with a lotus (Rajiv). The real surprise, however, lay in the small town of Kondagaon, a haven of craftsmen, located a four-hour ride from the temple. I visited a workshop of the highly decorated late Jaidev Baghel. His son, who now helms the project, is actively preserving the dokra kala (old craft) of fashioning sculptures and statues, whose history in both style and form can be traced back to the Harappan times.
Later that night, I was part of the unique celebration of Bastar Dussehra. Instead of observing the common practice of burning the Ravana, the locals construct a wooden chariot that holds the head goddess Danteshwari. My guide, Om Dehriya, told me that craftsmen work on the chariot for over six months, every night, bare-bodied, and build it whilst chanting a mantra. For over two weeks preceding Dussehra, the chariot is physically pulled across the streets for all to see and worship. I was fortunate enough to witness one. Men grunted and pulled the chariot, with not even the torrential rain slowing them down, while devotees danced and sang around them to Bollywood hits.
To get to the nearest town of Jagdalpur in time before sunset, we had to pass the Sukhma-Jhirim-Katekalyan, a reported hotbed of militant Naxals. My guide, now visibly unnerved, warned me to avoid taking pictures. We encountered herdsmen carrying guns in their bags, memorials bearing sickle-and-hammer symbols, and stark brown trees eaten hollow by termites. I heaved a sigh of relief as we safely reached the Chingritarai Haat Bazaar in Gumadpal district, where according to Dehriya, local tribesmen engage in food and liquor trade. There were no tourists or fortified shops in sight. The essence of the place was unadulterated by outsiders. Women sold local wine under their pretty umbrellas for as low as ₹10.
I couldn’t miss the chance to sample the market’s offerings, which included landa, the local rice beer, mahua, a fermented drink prepared from mahua leaves, and chapda—the famous ant chutney. As I stood there relishing the food and the view, I realised that the beauty of Chhattisgarh lies in its offbeat character, the many roads snaking across the forests of Bastar that hold secrets of their own, and locals who will go out of their way to show you their culture. To get unhindered access to the region’s heartland is a privilege I will forever hold close to my heart.
Read the full feature in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.
Arman Khan is a freelancer journalist and editor who writes at the intersection of travel, culture, and queer and minority rights. When he’s not binge watching dystopian dramas, you can always find him foraging in the hills. His works have appeared in Them, Vogue, GQ, VICE, Architectural Digest, The Swaddle, The Caravan, India Today, CN Traveller, Grazia, and Femina.